Thursday briefing: What we’ve learned from the Tory leadership contest

Show caption ‘She has a propensity to put her foot in it’ … Liz Truss arrives at a hustings event in July. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Rex/Shutterstock First Edition Thursday briefing: What we’ve learned from the Tory leadership contest In today’s newsletter: From Truss’s weakness to party faithful’s rightwing views, the Guardian’s new political editor surveys an interminable campaign – and what’s next Archie Bland Thu 1 Sep 2022 06.50 BST Share on Facebook

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Good morning, and good news: there are no more Conservative hustings events for you to definitely not watch. After last night’s finale, and with the ballot closing tomorrow at 5pm, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss’ campaigns are effectively over.

While anyone arriving early at Wembley Arena for this month’s Jordan Peterson or Paw Patrol live shows would have been disappointed, they might at least have recognised the evening’s key themes: a man’s barely submerged feelings of bitterness and entitlement on the one hand, and unconvincing facial animation on the other.

For the Tory faithful who did intend to be there, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. When the biggest news of the night is Liz Truss promising (against serious objections) not to ration energy, it would be hard for anyone to claim a mood of giddy enthusiasm for the likely victor’s vision of the future. “It was possible I was the only one watching,” wrote John Crace. “It certainly felt like it.”

Even so, there’s much we’ve learned from this leadership election about the candidates, the state of the Conservative party, and the likely future of the country. Today is a First Edition debut for the Guardian’s nearly-new political editor Pippa Crerar. Her thoughts on the big takeaways from the last couple of months are right after the headlines. And a quick note on another debut tomorrow: Nimo’s on holiday, so look out for our colleague Josh Halliday in your inbox.

Five big stories

In depth: ‘It’s a post-Brexit, post-Johnson party now’

Larry the cat will have new housemates at No 10. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

“This campaign’s gone on a bloody long time,” said Pippa Crerar, who arrived as the Guardian’s political editor a fortnight ago. She’s not wrong – but the race has perhaps felt still more protracted because, while it has been bloodthirsty and gaffe-strewn enough to keep it in the headlines, it has also gone largely according to script. “It was clear from the start that whoever was up against Sunak, so long as they were from the right, would be the members’ favourite,” Pippa said.

On the whole, Westminster Tories don’t think the long wait for a new prime minister has done them any favours. “If you speak to them privately, there’s concern that we haven’t learned anything new in the second half, and it may have done the party some long-term damage. Rather than this sense of a zombie government, you could have had someone in place early in August taking action on the cost of living.”

The fact that the Daily Telegraph’s splash today was not about that subject but about … Truss hinting she might abandon speed limits on motorways suggests how damaging the focus on Conservative hobby horses has been. “Leadership campaigns always tend to be inward-looking,” Pippa said. “But with so much going on the wider world, I did think the focus would be more on the major crises we’re facing.”

Here are some of the key takeaways from the campaign:


Truss’ reluctance to do interviews is sound campaigning – but reveals a weakness

The abiding image of Liz Truss this summer is of a candidate confidently fielding friendly questions from party members. That’s partly because there … aren’t really any other images. While Sunak has taken any opportunity available to try to change the dynamics of the race, the foreign secretary has turned down Andrew Neil, the Today programme, and now a one-on-one interview with Nick Robinson that she had previously agreed to.

“We might view it differently as journalists,” Pippa said, “but her team say: what’s the point? It’s not a risk worth taking. The only way it can go is badly.”

This problem isn’t just about her unease with the format, though: it’s about the difficulty of reconciling the positions popular with the party faithful and those which can best appeal to the wider electorate. “At every turn, she has pitched to where the membership lies. And she’s been an MP since 2010 – she has a track record for critics to pore over. You can understand why she wouldn’t want to expose herself more than she has to.”


The Tory faithful’s rightwing views make holding the 2019 coalition together difficult

When Pippa broke the story of Truss saying British workers lack “skill and application”, it seemed like an obvious vote-loser – except among the party membership. “An awful lot of them agree with those comments,” Pippa said. “This is very much the post-Brexit, post-Johnson party now.”

Paradoxically, though, even as Johnson tilted the membership to the right, he also appealed to a much wider demographic in the country that enabled him to win his decisive 2019 victory. “The really interesting question is whether she can hold that together. The strategy has been pitching to the right – so is she going to let down the members or the country?” With an election due within a couple of years, she added, “I think we can guess the answer to that.”


Rishi Sunak already has an eye on the future – and Johnson won’t go away

Ready for a comeback … Sunak at a hustings in Birmingham. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

“Sunak’s campaign genuinely believed that his momentum as frontrunner with MPs could see him through,” Pippa said. “Now, they won’t admit this publicly, but as it’s gone on, there’s an acknowledgment that he needs to define himself against [Truss].” That’s why, even as the result of the race has become clear, Sunak has continued to criticise his opponent bluntly – saying that he would not serve in her cabinet and even declining to say whether he would back a Truss emergency budget.

“They hope, over time, he will be able to remind everyone that he was on the right side of history – so that if it all implodes he will be able to step up,” Pippa said.

Meanwhile, as recently as four weeks ago, “Johnson’s close friends were saying he absolutely thinks he could return, and his wife feels the same way”. Truss has good reason to hope that the seduction of a return to Santa Monica or dashing off another dodgy book about Churchill prove more appealing than dealing with constituents’ potholes.


It will be hard to move on from the hostilities that have been on show

After leadership elections, political parties tend to make a performance of putting their disagreements behind them; in this campaign, the criticisms have been so blunt and so severe that it will be very hard to do so convincingly. Sunak tried last night, geeing up the crowd to applaud his opponent, but it feels a bit late.

All of this is partly because of Sunak’s position set out above, but also a feature of a party that has been in power for so long without a coherent ideological centre. “These schisms have really deepened,” Pippa said. “It felt like people who had been forced to keep their counsel finally being able to say exactly what they think. And it’s so damaging for the party brand.”


Truss doesn’t have long to come up with a plan on the cost of living

When pressed to set out the detail of their candidate’s plan to deal with soaring energy bills beyond marginal cuts to the green energy levy, a national insurance freeze, and hints about a VAT cut, the Truss campaign has resorted to claiming that she cannot do so until “she has been able to look at all the information and data available”.

There is some truth to the idea that “there’s no substitute for being in the job”, Pippa said – but “she has been getting briefings from [cabinet secretary] Simon Case, and the opposition has been able to put out costed plans. So it feels as if it’s about avoiding too much scrutiny, and not wanting her plans to be rubbished by the Treasury.”

That strategy will expire on Monday – and while Pippa doesn’t expect an “emergency budget”, which might draw criticism for not being fully analysed by fiscal watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility, “we will see a ‘fiscal event’ tightly around the cost of living crisis”. With a month until energy bills go up, it can’t come a moment too soon.

What else we’ve been reading

Netflix’s Mo is a warm and totally brilliant comedy about life as a Palestinian American refugee. I loved Arwa Madhawi’s piece about how groundbreaking it is, too. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

Remember when Boris Johnson knocked over a kid playing rugby? Or when he got stuck on a zipwire? Photographers who took memorable shots of Johnson reminisce about what really went on behind-the-scenes. Craille Maguire Gillies, production editor, newsletters

Ruby Lott-Lavigna sets out the grim details of the picture facing anyone stuck renting their home in the UK as the cost of living crisis bites – and argues that US data on the impact of rent controls looks promising. Archie

In this week’s TechScape, Alex Hern explains how Meta is finally helping people who’ve been banned from Facebook . He also listened to Mark Zuckerberg ’s three-hour interview with Joe Rogan so you don’t have to. Craille

Not a read but a podcast recommendation for Missing Pages, in which literary critic Bethanne Patrick looks at some of the biggest book-related scandals of all time. Come for writer Dan Mallory’s audacious deception, stay for the tale of a young author accused of plagiarism. Hannah


Tennis | Serena Williams is through to the third round of the US Open after an improbable 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 win over the second-seeded Anett Kontaveit last night, extending what she’s strongly hinted will be the final event of her storied career for at least two more days.

Football | Erling Haaland scored another hat-trick in Manchester City’s 6-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest – taking his tally to nine goals in five games. Meanwhile a last-gasp goal from Fabio Carvalho secured a 2-1 victory for Liverpool against Newcastle.

Football | Chelsea announced the signing of the French defender Wesley Fofana from Leicester for a reported £75m. The 21-year-old brings the club’s spending this summer to over £250m.

The front pages

Photograph: Guardian

This morning’s Guardian leads with “Children may die if families turn off heat, warn experts”. Ryan Giggs is pictured after his trial jury was unable to reach a verdict, and that makes for a splash elsewhere – “Giggs: the jury’s out”, says the Sun. “Ryan Giggs trial jury split” says the Metro. All three of the aforementioned papers raise the question of a retrial. “Truss hints she may axe motorway speed limits” – that’s the Telegraph’s top story today. The i has “Tories urge Truss to act fast on UK energy hikes”. The Times says “Decline of traditional UK family revealed” (another one for Liz Truss’s in-tray perhaps). “How could they give my son to my ‘deceitful’ neighbour?” – a complex custody case makes the front of the Daily Mail. The Daily Express says “‘Resting’ Queen won’t risk greeting new PM in London”. The main item on the Financial Times’ front page is “German factories halt output after Russia’s ‘alarming’ squeeze on gas”.

Today in Focus

Photograph: AnnaStills/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Culture this autumn: what to watch, read and listen to

Guardian critics Laura Snapes, Lucy Knight and Kate Abbott give their recommendations from the worlds of music, books and TV

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Illustration: Martin Rowson/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Merlin Labron-Johnson at The Old Pharmacy in Bruton. Photograph: Maureen Evans

A critical mass of chefs have decamped from London for the West Country, to grow their own food, “be on the land a bit more” and open eateries that put farm-to-table into practice. “I was missing a connection with the people eating my food – but also with the food itself,” says Merlin Labron-Johnson, a Michelin-starred chef who moved from London to Somerset to open the Old Pharmacy and Osip. “There’s a fickleness to the food scene in London,” says Labron-Johnson. Where he is now, patrons value “food with a story”. Mina Holland speaks with him and other chefs who are creating a new foodie destination – as much for locals as for visitors.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.